Not An Object, Not Your Property: Why Animals Need The Right To ‘Personhood’

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation.

India’s rich and varied heritage has allowed for compassion, tolerance and sometimes even reverence for animals in India. However, just like the rest of the world, the animals we work so hard to safeguard are ultimately seen only as property. After spending a long day rescuing dogs, or cows – if you go to your local police or Municipal Corporation demanding action for any real liberation; chances are, you face the same frustrating attitude towards animals being seen as mere objects with no regard for their intrinsic value or rights. Ultimately, a cow is owned by the dairy farmer, and if the dairy farmer feels the cow should be tied all day, and if the law allows it, then that’s that.

For most animal rights activists, this property-status is not just frustrating but inherently unjust. The current definition of rights and personhood excludes animals on the claim that only natural persons or legal personalities have rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and legal liability. But these animals are sentient beings who can think and feel, and whether we are doing vegan outreach for cows and chickens, or sterilising dogs or rescuing snakes – ultimately, the one dream that drives the animal rights community is that animals are NOT property.

The idea of legal personhood for animals is still in its infancy globally – few work for it and fewer still are the victories. Thankfully, some rights have already been recognised in India – the release of the wild elephant “Sonu” who was held in captivity by the authorities of Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Bilaspur Chhattisgarh, is one such example. The judgement highlighted the need for non-interference into the lives and territories of animals by humans and the government. Another battle was won when in 2013, FIAPO achieved a historic victory for all cetaceans, particularly dolphins, through its “Ban Captive Dolphins” campaign, where the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC) recognised all cetaceans as non-human persons deeming them “extremely intelligent” with “highly-developed social structures.” All these and more have implied that after all, animals have an intrinsic right to dignity and a life where fundamental rights are the order and not the exception.

Inspired by the victories so far, FIAPO is now examining a campaign for legal personhood for animals. We have put together all the available research – legal arguments and progress, ethical arguments (sentience) and precedents, biological arguments (for example chimpanzees share 90% of the same DNA as humans do) – and on why we need to do this. But I know most of us perhaps don’t need the research – 5 minutes with any animal can tell us that they have rights that need to be recognised – not just by activists, but by the legal system, and by society at large. The paradigm of seeing animals as property needs to shift to seeing animals as beings with intrinsic value who, just like humans nurture their young ones, build kinship, feel grief and are therefore worthy of at least some of the most basic fundamental rights.

Since personhood for animals underlies the work we do – whether for cats, dogs, cows, donkeys, snakes, birds, reptiles, horses, elephants – we want to run this campaign together with everyone in India who is standing for animals.

Varda Mehrotra, Director, Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO)

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